Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tuesday in Warsaw

[Warning: this will be the longest post of the trip. I cannot write it with few words and I apologize for that.]

Sometime in the middle of that first night, I skyped Ed and proclaimed -- I can't sleep. It's not the jet lag. It's the being in Warsaw thing. When I am here, I slowly forget all those adaptive mechanisms that have allowed me to feel, in Madison, more American than Polish. I can't do that for long when I'm back home (in Poland). The tug is strong to slip back into Polishness and it leaves me confused and, at night, restless.

But at some point the tension eased and sleep came (this is a reality that the tossers and turners forget sometimes -- eventually we all do sleep). Maybe it's the lesson of yoga: I focus on the stretching and twisting in class, but I do know that it teaches me to let go of anxiety.

Morning. I look out the window at a Warsaw courtyard.

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Lovely and cold, all at the same time. I put on something warm: orange pants, matching the color accents in the room (the specs are in the mirror not in your eyes!)

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The breakfast at my B&B is downstairs in the cafe bar. And it is a lovely meal of egg, muesli, yogurts, fruits. I am forever, back home (I mean now back at the farmhouse), photographing breakfast. So here's breakfast.

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Outside, the snow is again coming down lightly, prettily. It's in the low twenties. I put on an extra sweater, tie up my scarf and head out.

Right away I can tell that it's going to be a splendid walk. I can feel it in the bounce I bring to the enterprise. Again and again I tell myself -- this is beautiful! You could say that it is because I chose to do the gloriously regal walk up Krakowskie Przedmiescie -- the grand avenue that links the old new town with the old old town (at the foundation level anyway, since I must remind you, Warsaw was 90% rubble after World War II). But it isn't just that. The snow is delicate, gentle. My memories are that too today.

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the gates to the University of Warsaw where I studied for 2.5 years

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a snow covered cardinal and St Joseph's church

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I could spot a Pole a mile away

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in winter, it can appear to be almost always lightly snowing; streets aren't shoveled, they're swept

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one of the many Christmas markets: note the highlander sheeps milk cheeses -- eaten warm, and at the forefront, a slice of bread with smalec (pig fat) with pickles

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the Royal Castle Square

I'm switching to Polish now, in stores and elsewhere. But I find that I have that American softness to my speech. The Polish melodic inflection is gone too. I hear its absence, but I do nothing to force it back. I'm kind of enjoying the reaction. At several points, people think that I am an American who has learned Polish very very well. Nearly perfectly! The accent isn't perfect, but so what!

Which brings me to this question that I come back to again and again: why do so many Poles love America so much? Even as that love is not at all reciprocated. I mean, America let them down. Again and again. Thinking back to the war (and I do, every time that I am here), I tick off the numerous ways the United States looked the other way when Hitler attacked Poland. And after? This country of mine, which was the first in Europe to stand up to Hitler, only to find itself invaded from the east as well -- this country was then handed over to the Soviets as a spoil of war: you take this we'll take that. We were part of the package that became Eastern Europe, meaning the Europe that Stalin could call his own. And no one even raised a word of regret. Not then, not for all the years that the Soviet Union exerted its control over what happened within the boundaries of my homeland. Indifference: we (I speak as an American now) are good at demonstrating our indifference to this poor battered nation.

Poles are not too keen on their neighbors to the east. But they love Americans! (Even as they do not really understand them and in that, we are all tied, because Americans don't understand Poles either.) The same Americans that are to this day refusing entry to my countrymen unless they apply for a visa -- a prolonged, odious process that requires a physical standing in line at the American Embassy, a process we (I speak as an American now) force onto every Pole who wishes to travel overseas.

You don't believe me that Poles are forgiving toward America? Among the statutes that line the boulevards of Warsaw, I come across this one (forgive the dimness -- I took it later in the day):

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Ronald Reagan: the only US sitting president in the last fifty years who did not visit Poland; Nixon was first to come here, George W. Bush came three times and Obama was here in 2011, though happy thoughts of that were probably erased a year later, when Poles were stunned to hear that in honoring a Resistance fighter, he referred in his speech to Polish death camps. How could he! (Poland was the rare country on the continent where Hitler could not find collaborators, nor did my country at any point surrender and the camps were run entirely by Germans.)

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Monument to the Heroes who died fighting for Poland between 1939 and 1945

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Monument to those who died in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944

I push thoughts of Polish - American relations aside for a while. Let me indulge my Polishness thoroughly now. Did I mention how glorious this day is? I don't even notice the cold. I walk endlessly, for miles and miles. Through the old old town…

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On and on until I notice on my watch that I'm late for a tea date with a friend. In Poland, I do as I have always done, all my life here -- drink tea with lemon.

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And then I walk some more. I am away from the old town now -- closer to the hub, the center, and as it turns out, close tot he route I sometimes took on my walks home from high school. So often I stopped here, to buy bread (exactly like these rolls!)  for home.

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Nostalgia. Not everyone has it for their high school years, but I do. And wouldn't you know it, I am near my high school now. After moving back from the States (my dad worked for the UN and so we spent my elementary school years in New York) I attended this Lycée. I see that students leaving for the day.

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So the classrooms must be empty. On the spur of the moment, I decide to go inside.

The door guard sits and monitors who comes and goes and I ask him for permission to enter. Go up and speak to the director, he ushers me in. After many conversations of the type-- I don't live here any more, I'm visiting, I used to go to school here, I am passed on from one office to the next, but with smiles from everyone, until finally someone with a key opens my classroom for me.

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Nothing has changed! Even the desks are lined up exactly in the same way -- three rows, two students per desk. Same bare walls -- none of this American penchant for ornamentation -- same parquet floors… My God, could it be that time stands still inside the high school gates?

It does not. No one wears uniforms anymore (from the administrators: we tried to preserve that rule -- it was good for the kids to wear cloaks over their daily clothes -- but there was too much resistance, so we gave up). But they do shed their street shoes. Not for slippers -- that custom's gone too -- but for sneakers. And gone are the chain link fenced cloakrooms downstairs. These days, they have very American looking lockers!

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One of the administrators asks me about my school days here and I tell him quite honestly that I loved my time in school. My home was my classroom (we stayed in the same room, with the same 36 kids for the duration of high school), my friends were my family. I was a young high schooler (I had skipped grades) and I wasn't especially studious, but this place was the epicenter of my life during what I still regard as the formative years.

I leave with a smile at the memory of it all.

And the smile continues as I turn the corner and follow the long block toward Belweder -- the palace that is now again the seat of government for our president. So you could say we have our own small White House!

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I am near Lazienki -- the most beautiful park in the world.

I hadn't intended to go there: I love it, but I have to remind you -- it's really cold now, not exactly park strolling weather. It's almost dusk and I know the park closes at dusk. I step inside anyway. It's magical!

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I walk the grand avenues, take the snow covered paths that crisscross this glorious place…

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… and as I lose myself in the heart of this nearly empty place of winter loveliness, I begin to wonder if it's possible to get locked in. Dusk is certainly upon us…

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I run into an old man who appears to be here for his daily stroll (you can tell in the way he walks the place, knowingly, without hurry) and I ask -- are they closing yet? Don't worry, he tells me. They push dusk a little in the winter time.

And so I persevere. To the summer palace…

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and around again. Up the hill to the gate… Oh oh, closed. It is almost dark.

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But I see people inside still, so I know that I am not to spend the night here after all. (A guard tells me that at the southernmost gate there is someone there round the clock, so for future reference -- you cannot trap yourself inside.)

And so I head toward the open gate, past a snow-covered Chopin…

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Out onto the boulevard. Daylight here is replaced by night light. Beautiful, holiday night light.

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And I just can't help grinning to myself.

Turning back in the direction of my B&B, I go through one more park (this one closes at 9). I call it the beautiful lesser park in Warsaw because it would be grand but it stands like a poor cousin a stone's throw from the grander Lazienki. It's also much, much smaller, but I know it well, because this is the place where (in the daytime) very young kids are brought for walks and a bit of playtime.

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I turn back toward the old new town (you have to know Warsaw to understand that the new town isn't really new, well no, it's new in that it was reconstructed, but it's rebuilt in the neoclassical style so it's newer than the old town)… passing the old Communist Headquarters. Funny to see a restaurant now just exactly below the windows where, for a while, my father worked (it's a complicated story as to how and why he wound up there for a handful of years, but it's his story, so I'll let it go for now).

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And now I'm just a block away from my B&B...

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 ...where I quickly change (but staying with the orange pants!) and leave again, to spend an evening with a handful of my very best high school and university friends. It is joyous and wonderful to see them! By now, we have nothing in common except our past and that is one mighty fierce platform because it's as if we have a shared everything. We are intensely close even as we are not close at all. We do not track each others lives anymore when I am away, but when I am here, it's as if we are who we were back then.

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the hosts and (in the center) the wife of a high school pal

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the feast

The next day is a work day for them all and so at midnight, I force myself to get going. I'm spent, but not spent. I'm energized, but tired. I'm a whole bevy of feelings and thoughts. To be sorted out tomorrow, or the next day or the next, or the next...